Do Cheetos Count? Fasting in Malaysia
I ate half a bag of imitation Cheetos, chugged a lemon-lime 100Plus, and stared up at the precariously spinning blades of our living room fan.
It had been a typical day in Pendang, Malaysia. It was hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and I’d spent it “teaching” at my small, rural school. I had cajoled my malu, malu kuchings (shy, shy cats) in form two into playing endless rounds of ‘Zip, Zap, Zoom!’, gossiped with my best friends in form four about their latest boyfriend dramas, and schemed with the owner of a hostel in Kuala Lumpur to plan a student leadership retreat for the next month.
I was pooped and dehydrated and hungry but it was Ramadan, and so was everyone else. My school was about 10% Thai but the rest of the population—teachers, staff, and students—were Muslim Malaysians, called Malays. Out of respect for the literal hunger in the eyes of all the folks around me fasting, I typically did not eat or drink during school. Which brought about ravenous consumption immediately upon getting home.
Eating during Ramadan was tricky in our little town of Pendang because it essentially became a food desert during fasting hours. All the food stalls shuttered their doors from sun-up to sun-down. Perhaps most distressing was the strip of pop-up carts that served fried foods every afternoon. RIP post-teaching fried fish sticks and yams. Food was really only available at the Pasar Malam, the pre-sundown, outdoor market where folks shopped for their nightly fast-breaking feasts. Today, I had skipped the market in favor of 7/11 snacks and a heat induced coma/nap in the living room. The day wasn’t over yet, though; I was going back to school for Iftar at the hostel.
When the official time of sunset arrived and silent prayer was replaced with voracious eating, I realized this was why I was here. All the cultural fatigue and squat toilets and broken air conditioners and life left behind in America were for this.
After a few more minutes wondering when that fan was finally going to fall from the ceiling, I peeled my sweaty, sunburned carcass off the bamboo floor mat and trudged to the spare room in the house I shared with my fellow American Fulbrighter. This was our baju room. Here, we kept the thirty or so baju Kurungs—traditional Malaysian professional clothes—we shared and wore to school. Each baju consisted of a floor length, wildly patterned skirt with a matching long-sleeved, high-collared, tunic top. I picked a swirling blue-green number that one of my co-workers had gifted me for the feast tonight and threw my hair into the classic Miss Laura style: a sloppy, sliding bun on top of my head. Grabbing the keys to the car my housemate and I shared and stuffing the half-eaten Cheetos into my purse to eat on the drive, I was ready for Iftar.
It was a half-hour drive along narrow, unlined village roads to my school. The roads—like the landscape itself—were entirely flat. Impassible flooding was a common occurrence, and not just during rainy season, because the roads were all but seamless against rice paddy fields and rubber tapping plantations that seemed to be constantly expanding. As I drove with the latest American English pop hits and air-con blasting, my favorite part of a Malaysian day was beginning. Sunset here was bigger and sharper than anywhere else I had ever seen. It wasn’t just my half-fasting haze that made the Malaysian sky burn with vibrancy; the nearly unnatural oranges, purples, and reds oozing in the sky were just another average evening.
This was my first time visiting my school hostel, but I knew the set-up because most Malaysian schools had the same system: if you could test into a better public school than the schools available in your village, you could live at the hostel during the week. When I pulled into the small parking area between the boys’ and girls’ dorms, I parked my car in front of the boys’ dormitory and couldn’t help but laugh.
Bounding from table to table barefoot, with my baju,-flowing I was representing America the only way I knew how: sweaty, smiling, and full of love for all my kiddos.
Standing above me on the balcony, a line of young men were staring down with various expressions of shyness and flirtation. The crowd quickly disappeared when I smiled and waved in return. As the boys were fleeing, I could hear the giggly, high-pitched, sing-song chorus of “Miss, Miss Laura, helloooooo,” that followed me everywhere, coming from behind he car. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I spotted a gaggle of young women dressed in their best baju Kurungs cooing and staring as they waited for me. I smiled and waved and the laughter intensified. Wiping the orange cheese dust coating my fingers onto the grey car seat, I bid farewell to the air-con and stepped out into the hazy, humid Malaysian dusk.
My girl gang wasted no time grabbing my hands and insisting we take selfies together before going into the dining hall. They told me I was so much more beautiful in my baju than anything else I ever wore (but didn’t fail to point out the blossoming pimple on my forehead) all while throwing up peace signs and duck faces for my cell phone camera. After the first of many selfie sessions of the night, they shepherded me into the dining hall and gestured to the table full of adult teachers playing Candy Crush at the front of the room, where I was supposed to sit.
Between the entrance and the cikgus (teachers) were about three dozen tables of students, freshly dressed in their best formal wear, alternately giggling at me and waving me towards them. What followed was a fifteen-minute procession through a throng of Malaysian teenagers that would have made any politician proud. I offered my hand for Malay girls to salaam, kissed the cheeks and foreheads of Thai girls, and air-fived all the boys, careful not to accidentally bump their hands with my own. Bounding from table to table barefoot, with my baju,-flowing I was representing America the only way I knew how: sweaty, smiling, and full of love for all my kiddos.
When my procession concluded, I plopped down beside my mentor at the teacher table. Only a few years older than me, she was my angelic translator for every facet of my Malaysian life. When my roommate and I needed to sign a Wifi contract, she brokered us a deal that left us feeling only mildly swindled. When my white shirt was “too sexy” one day at school, she informed me of this loudly in the teachers’ room, but then stood in front of me in class like the superhero she was. Tonight, as always, she played the role of linguistic and cultural translator throughout the uncharacteristically short ceremony. As I leaned towards her to hear the English translation of the speeches, watches were stared at and seconds ticked off as we drew closer and closer to eating. When silence descended for prayer, I sat back alone and looked around the room.
When my roommate and I needed to sign a Wifi contract, my mentor brokered us a deal that left us feeling only mildly swindled. When my white shirt was “too sexy” one day at school, she informed me of this loudly in the teachers’ room
Before this moment, I hadn’t given that much thought to the meaning of fasting. I understood the logistics and had half-heartedly even tried it myself. But the reverence it inspired in my adopted family and the dedication they approached it with moved me. Even more so, the fact that they welcomed me—a non-religious, white, American, women—into this powerful, sacred moment was beautiful.
When the official time of sunset arrived and silent prayer was replaced with voracious eating, I realized this was why I was here. All the cultural fatigue and squat toilets and broken air conditioners and life left behind in America were for this. This moment, where even I as a supreme outsider in a hand-me-down baju Kurung with sweat streaming down my back, felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love for a community I could have never anticipated finding. With tears welling in my eyes, I reached for the plate of chicken and thought how beautiful this life is.
After dinner, I took selfies with teachers and asked my form five students their plans for when they graduated this year. Some girls grabbed my wrists and led me to their dorm to show off their bedrooms, closets, and secret pictures of boyfriends. Soon it was late and everyone needed to be back at the school mosque to study. It was a long walk from the hostel to the school though, so a gaggle of tiny, Malaysian girls flooded into my car to drive there instead. They immediately found several pairs of sunglasses, the radio volume knob, and my half eaten Cheetos bag. Cue spontaneous Taylor Swift dance party with accompanying backseat selfies.
“Miss Laura, stay in Malaysia forever, ok? You can always drive us in your new car and take us shopping!”
I’d never gotten a more compelling job offer.